Plane bored: How to survive a long flight with no video

An involuntary lesson on brain decluttering when your video display fails on a trip from London to Doha.

A technical problem with the video screen in seat 31G on Qatar flight QR0328 is the reason this story exists.

Instead of watching Dwayne Johnson try to control an oversized silverback gorilla in the film Rampage, I am passing the six-hour, 30-minute flight from London to Doha drinking awful red wine and tapping away on an iPad, which I failed to load with anything interesting to watch.

Rather than being filled with The Rock’s impressively glistening and muscular rig, the screen before me is a mess of static and green lines.

For a few precious moments over Bucharest it seems to be working but I am only being teased. The static returns sporadically, ruining my viewing with infuriating randomness.

One of the exceptionally hardworking flight attendants (do we call them that nowadays?) looking after this part of the plane tries fixing it but can’t. I have no idea why I even asked her. Chances were always going to be slim that she had thrown in her career as an electronics engineer to push a service cart on long-haul flights out of Gatwick.

She is very understanding but doesn’t tell me what I really want to hear, which is: “Seat 1A is free and the screen is working fine, Mr Harvey, you go and make yourself comfortable while I tend to your hand luggage.”

That intransigence notwithstanding, she is a true professional. I would love to throw her name into the mix so Qatar might reward her somehow but her name tag is hard to see (apropos red wine reference above) and in a confined space at 40,000 feet you can only stare at a lady’s chest for so long before an undercover air marshal starts closing in.

I suspect that if I continue complaining she will suggest I sit in the seat across the aisle, which is a plum posting because it is in an exit row. Plus it boasts the added bonus of being a bulkhead that isn’t near a toilet, so the extra legroom isn’t blighted by 200 people performing their ablutions behind a wafer-thin panel 65cm in front of your face. 

It truly is the Jutland Parade of economy class but I can’t bring myself to ruin the journey for the bloke sitting in the seat next to the empty one. The look of rapture when he walked down the aisle and realised he was in the exit row was priceless. He then spent a nerve-racking 15 minutes hoping the other passengers walking towards him were sitting in other rows. When the pilot told the flight crew to prepare for take-off and the seat next to him was still vacant this guy was almost high-fiving himself.

So in a rare, if not unprecedented, moment of selflessness on a flight I elect to stay where I am and spend the rest of the flight secretly hoping the unwitting beneficiary of my largesse will see my bust screen and suggest I move. 

He doesn’t. 

Left with my own thoughts, the time drags on.

Dinner comes and goes. A run on red chicken curry between rows 17 and 28 means I am forced to order something purporting to be a beef and mushroom casserole. It looks unappetising but turns out to be tasty. And the little package of full-fat, full-salt butter makes up for any of the bread roll’s shortcomings.

Dining on Qatar: Calombaris takes Greek dining to the skies

The flight over the Black Sea is spent trying to lip-read the film being played in 30K but the female lead is talking way too fast. From Turkey to Syria I analyse the flight information screen at the front of our cabin. It is framed like a real cockpit, which means in moments of boredom-invoked self-delusion you can pretend you are Maverick or Goose in Top Gun.

Two degree pitch, zero degree roll. (Sounds right.) 

Ground speed 868km/h. (Gosh, that’s fast.) 

Outside temp: Minus 65 Fahrenheit (-53C). (I wonder what would happen if I jumped out with a mouthful of water — would it freeze before I died?)

Heading: 123 degrees. (Makes as much sense as the pitch/roll ratio.)

Vertical speed: Swinging wildly between -20 and 13. (Best we just assume that’s normal.)

Altitude: 11,908 metres. (Five times, plus 760 metres, the height of Mt Kosciusko, a statistic I have known since grade five but am yet to deploy at a quiz night.)

By the time we are over Kayseri (nope, I don’t know either) and with two hours, 50 minutes to go, the lack of obvious annoyances means my unstimulated brain has bandwidth to amplify the myriad smaller frustrations around me, specifically:

1. The woman next to me listening to her movie so loud I can almost hear the dialogue myself. My hearing is tantalisingly close to being able to distinguish the words and she has tilted her video screen in such a way that I can see it perfectly. It’s driving me crazy but as much as I would like to I can’t dwell on this point because the cabin lights are off and my iPad is glowing conspicuously, so she may see what I’m typing.

2. The guy two rows in front of me behaving like he is in business class, ordering the air hostess (pretty sure we don’t call them that anymore) around like he is on Air Force One. Case study on why it’s a sound policy to ban firearms on planes.

3. The kids from row 20 (ish) who are running up and down the aisle and saying they don’t speak English (in perfect English) when the flight staff intercept them. Actually, they aren’t the annoyance, it’s their parents. By the time we hit Iraqi airspace I’d happily have used the kids as a weapon against their parents. 

With 50 minutes to go I give myself a reality check. How had I got to a place where the idea of flying without on-demand movies and box sets was so distressing? For someone with a reasonably busy job, why could I not welcome the opportunity to be blessedly unstimulated for a few hours?

Turns out that at 11pm London time (2am Doha time), I am too tired to self-analyse. But stepping off the flight I feel curiously settled. My brain has had a chance to declutter itself. 

So, if you are ever on a flight and forced to take a dose of technical austerity because of a screen malfunction, don’t fret too much. The worst-case scenario is you will have more stuff to watch on the next leg of your flight. 

And you will have the chance to solve some of the smaller puzzles of life, like why on Earth passengers need to be kept informed about an A330’s vertical air speed...

Ed: Kayseri is in Anatolia, Turkey. Copious drinking when flying is not recommended.